Year: 2009
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Publisher: Atari
Genre: Action Role Playing
Review Date: 9/22/12
Rating: ***

A group of undead tyrants have taken over the city of Venice, and due to some loopholes in the cosmic order, only the daughter of Death can stop them. Her name is Scarlett, and at the beginning of the game she is nothing but an unassuming young woman living a quiet and peaceful existence in the sleepy mountain village of San Pasquale. But then the Undead Archon's assassins come for her, burning the village and killing her betrothed in the process. She miraculously escapes, and embarks on her epic quest for vengeance and/or justice.

I typically don't enjoy RPGs, but a strong female lead and gorgeous art direction eventually pulled me into "Venetica's" world. While it was generally panned by critics, I found it quite enjoyable. Scarlett is a wonderful character, and while the moral decisions you make have little to no effect on the story, it's nice to be given choices for how you want her to behave. As with most RPGs, you gain wealth and experience by performing various quests, which opens up new areas to explore and gets you closer to your ultimate goal. Managing character stats is simple, but not obvious. In fact, it wasn't until halfway through the game that I realized I had unassigned attribute points, and it's not clear how to actually use them. The game's difficulty ramps up smoothly, and the "easy" setting allowed me to make steady progress with minimal frustration. Only a handful of adversaries towards the end of the game prove to be problematic, as they can quickly surround and trap you. Thankfully, being the daughter of Death, Scarlett knows a handy trick that allows her to enter the Twilight World and either flee or resurrect herself a certain number of times. She can also speak to the spirits of the dead and learn valuable things from them.

The game's strongest aspect is its art direction, and the world of "Venetica" is delightful to look at and explore. The world smoothly cycles between day and night with stunning results. Some level-of-detail issues creep up here and there, but they're easy to overlook. The frame rate tends to get a bit choppy whenever you enter a new area, but it's not nearly as bad as most reviewers would have you believe. The biggest issue I found with the visual presentation is that Scarlett doesn't navigate stairs very smoothly, and her herky-jerky movement is jarring and can induce motion sickness if you're not careful. The frequent loading screens can also spoil your sense of immersion.

Scarlett is a wonderful character to play and her character model is very attractive. However, like many other games I've played, all of the supporting characters are unattractive caricatures with bizarre exaggerated features. The voice acting ranges from bad to good, and while a lot of it is campy and cringe worthy, Scarlett's performance and delivery are consistently excellent. I really appreciate that Scarlett has a voice and that ALL of the dialog is performed, which is something that always bothered me about other RPGs like "Jade Empire" and "Knights Of The Old Republic." Unfortunately, audio levels vary wildly for the supporting characters, and occasionally a character's voice will completely change in the middle of a conversation. Random audio clips tend to overlap and overwhelm conversations, and show up at the most inappropriate times. It's very annoying trying to have a serious conversation with someone in a closed room and having it drowned out with repeated occurrences of "mmm, that looks good" and "er, I don't know..."

The writing is consistently good and quite clever in places, but the subtitles don't always match what the characters are saying. The most egregious example is when "I have a parcel for you" is confused with "I'm looking for some fire mushrooms." The music is also quite good and does an excellent job of setting the mood and complementing the atmosphere. It suffers from occasional looping issues and sometimes the combat music will continue playing long after a threat has been eliminated. Sometimes the combat music will play when there aren't any enemies around, which can place you needlessly on-guard.

Combat is fairly simple, but mostly boils down to choosing your favorite weapon and furiously mashing the attack button. Blocking and dodging rarely work, which leaves few options in terms of strategy. Scarlett can also learn how to cast necromancy spells, and while there are numerous options at your disposal, in practice you'll only use one or two of these skills. This is hampered by the fact that it's cumbersome to equip spells, or anything in your inventory for that matter, so you tend to stick with just one configuration.

As much as I enjoyed playing the game, it's not without significant problems. First of all, the text is completely illegible on a standard definition TV. I would hope that it's better in HD, but you'd still need a pretty big screen in order to read it. This makes navigating dialog trees extremely difficult, which mostly boils down to guesswork and random button pressing. It might as well be written in Japanese. Thankfully, the game is linear enough that your dialog decisions don't directly affect the world or your progress. Another major issue is that the world map is clunky and nearly useless. In fact, it wasn't until twenty hours into the game that I figured out how to actually use it, and that was based on something I read on the Internet. It doesn't help that the map's legend uses a black dot to represent the controller's D-pad.

I also ran into a game limiting bug at one point, which took a couple of hours to resolve. In order to access the inner city of Venice, you need to learn a particular spell. Of course, no one tells you this, unless it's in the illegible text somewhere. In order to learn spells, you need a certain number of skill points, and skill points are earned by leveling your character up through various quests. It's possible to exhaust your quest options and spend all of your skill points on other skills before realizing that you need a specific skill in order to make progress. And when I finally learned that skill, the character that I needed to talk to just disappeared. I scoured the city for him and retraced his known routes and hangouts for about an hour. Finally, out of sheer luck, I found him trapped in a piece of geometry, stuck on a lamppost about twelve feet in the air. Amazingly, just by proximity I was able to talk to him and get a key that was in his possession. Curiously, he never moved, and every time I came back to the outer city he was still there, suspended in mid-air.

"Venetica" is a long game and it took me about forty hours to complete it. While the first half is quite engaging and compelling, it becomes increasingly uninteresting once you find your way into the heart of Venice's Arsenal District. When I finally made it to the Doge's palace, my desire to continue the game was almost gone. Part of this was due to a breakdown in the narrative (long-winded ghosts, melodramatic meetings, plot clichés, and singing?), combined with repetitive tasks, tiresome backtracking, and heavily re-used assets. Additionally, the climax falls flat and is a bit stale. But for the most part I found it a journey worth taking. "Venetica" has a lot to offer that can't be experienced on a single play-through, but I don't have the time or patience to revisit it. Thankfully, the Venetica Wiki is an excellent source to help optimize your journey and learn about the things you might have missed. It also fills in the gaps that are missing in the instruction manual, so you can actually learn how to use the map and inventory screens correctly.